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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Generic Games: So Mainstream

Okay, I admit that I was just trying to get your attention with that title. And that picture was the best one I found when searching "hipster elf". So, I tried. In this post, I'm going to be talking about the benefits and drawbacks of both generic and more story-specific games.

One for All: Generic Systems
A generic system is an RPG that can be used to run any number of different games, from various genres and settings. The more dramatically different these are, the more generic the system is. For instance, GURPS is a generic system. So is Savage Worlds, and Risus. World of Darkness skirts the edge of "generic", because it's solidly set in a modern world, but with slight modifications, it easily can be made to suit a variety of genres.

What's Good: Generic systems are toolboxes, the Swiss Army Knives of gaming. With only a little tinkering, a generic system can adapt to suit any style of game you want to run. This also means that players don't have to learn an entirely new system when you want to switch stories.

What's Not So Good: Being a toolbox means that a generic system will go one of two ways. First, it can be a modular system with reams of optional rules to suit various genres. In other words, it's not really a single system any longer, just a bunch of systems put together around a core framework (which means a lot of work to master each one, so it's like learning a new system for a new genre). Second, it can be a system which retains a massive distance from the conventions of the genre. It relies purely on the abilities of the players and GM to maintain genre fidelity, with no mechanical reinforcement.

A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi: Genre Systems
A step down from generic systems is the category of genre systems, games which have rules that are slanted to encourage play in a particular style or manner. Examples of this would be D&D (high-magic fantasy adventuring focused around combat encounters), Legend of the Five Rings (Eastern-styled adventures), Call of Cthulhu (combat and investigation in a world where supernatural horrors sap your ability to maintain a grip on reality), and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (comic-book adventures). World of Darkness has one foot planted squarely here, with its Morality stat (or equivalents, such as Clarity/Humanity/Wisdom) enforcing a central game theme.

What's Good: Genre systems still allow you a strong bit of flexibility, and they also reinforce a number of genre conventions, helping you to create a strong sense of atmosphere in the game. They help to connect you with the themes of the story.

What's Not So Good: The rules still lack some very strong ties to the fiction, which may be something you want. They also explicitly exclude other genres, without a little bit of hacking, although not completely. This also means that you'll generally have to teach a genre system anew when you switch genres. It can also be a hard sell to players who are used to another genre system, and thus are attached to that style of play.

Full Throttle: Specific Systems
I reserve the term "specific systems" for a very particular sort of game. It's a game that is tightly designed around a particular sort of narrative arc, a game where all of the rules are primed towards making a particualar experience happen. Fiasco, Dread, Misspent Youth, and Don't Rest Your Head are all examples of specific systems. They're strong rules engines that resemble (in my opinion) movies: you go into one for a very specific experience.

What's Good: There is a certain artful use of mechanics at this level: they become bound up and mirror the actual behind-the-scenes mechanics of a particular type of story. This winds up reinforcing the momentum of the story, visibly showing you what's going on beneath the surface. Instead of merely inferring that a relationship is progressing, you get to see it mechanically increase, as well as seeing it grow in the game. Fiction and mechanics support one another to create something stronger.

What's Not So Good: It can be very hard to adapt these games to another type of story...counterproductive, I'd say. The best way to hack a specific system is to identify what its driving elements are; you then know what sorts of stories the system is best-suited to emulate. These games also tend to be very limited in scope, and sometimes in duration. Finally, it can be hard to stretch the sorts of themes explored in one of these games. The best result comes from fleshing out the story within the confines of the system.

Finishing Thoughts
There's a lot of games out there, and I ultimately think the best solution is to familiarize yourself with a lot of games. I mean, it's not as if you only read one book ever, or only watch one TV show ever, or only play one boardgame ever. See what's out there, try something new, and test the limits of the games you know and love.

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